Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

In February, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act and requiring large, privately owned stormwater polluters to obtain permits for their dirty discharge.

EPA’s responsibility is clear: to ensure that our waterways are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. The agency’s failure to require polluters to control their runoff puts the Charles’ water quality at risk and places an unfair burden on cities, towns, and, ultimately, taxpayers, to foot the bill for managing stormwater pollution.

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

CLF is asking the EPA to hold polluters accountable for unregulated stormwater discharge, which is harming the Charles River. Photo: Charles River Watershed Association.

In part due to improvements in water pollution, the Charles River today is an incredible recreational and ecological resource flowing through the heart of Boston and surrounding communities. On any given summer day, you’ll see scores of people sailing, boating, kayaking, and fishing its waters. But the reality is, for all the progress made in cleaning up this iconic river in recent decades, significant threats to its health remain, including polluted stormwater runoff.

Along the Charles’ 80-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor you’ll find thousands of acres of strip malls, office parks, and other industrial development – along with flat roofs and huge parking lots (80% of the land area in Greater Boston is paved). All those impermeable surfaces add up to trouble when it rains or, as is happening now, snow melts.

Back when the Charles flowed through a largely natural landscape, that rain and snowmelt would have been absorbed by the ground and filtered of pollutants long before it drained into the river. Today, though, stormwater rushes off those mirror-like impermeable surfaces, picking up debris, fertilizer, and other toxic pollution along the way. The result: a contaminated soup of dirty water draining into the Charles and other rivers, lakes, and streams across New England.

The worst part of the problem? EPA not only knows who the biggest privately owned stormwater dischargers are, it also has the legal authority to hold them accountable. In fact, the Clean Water Act requires known stormwater polluters to obtain a permit for their discharge. But EPA has failed to uphold this basic responsibility.

By not enforcing the law, EPA is leaving cash-strapped cities and towns – and all of us as taxpayers – on the hook for the costs of this damaging pollution. And those costs are big. One of the most harmful pollutants swept into the river with stormwater is phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the water can lead to massive blue-green algae outbreaks, which are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife. This is just one reason why the Charles is so often subject to closures and advisories for fish contamination and unsafe swimming and boating.

The bottom line is that stormwater pollution is hurting the river, the wildlife that depend on it to be healthy, and the communities that pay when it’s not. A successful outcome to this lawsuit will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits. Those permits would not only control the stormwater pollution those businesses can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.

The Charles River will never truly be healthy until stormwater pollution – and the industrial offenders responsible for it – are brought under control. It’s time for EPA to step up and enforce the law and set the Charles on the final road to recovery once and for all.

For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”

CLF Bringing Suit to Address Stormwater in Rhode Island

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago, CLF initiated a lawsuit that seeks to require EPA to do its job under the Clean Water Act and clean up stormwater pollution in Rhode Island. This lawsuit has the potential to be a very big deal.

What is stormwater pollution?

When heavy rain falls and snow melts, water runs across paved surfaces, picks up nasty pollutants like oil, feces, and heavy metals, and eventually flows into Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers, the Narragansett Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. Rhode Island is densely populated, has a lot of paved surfaces – about 12% of the state, in fact – and there’s not a spot in this tiny, coastal state that’s far from water. This means that there’s a lot of polluted runoff flowing into a lot of water bodies in Rhode Island. Because of stormwater pollution, many of Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers are not fit for swimming, fishing, or even serving as wildlife habitat.


Mashapaug Pond is so polluted that it’s closed to fishing and swimming. CLF’s suit is a critical step in helping restore the ailing pond to health.

That sounds bad.

It is! And it’s worse some places than others. For example, stormwater pollution causes algae growth in Providence’s Mashapaug Pond, choking aquatic life and – because of highly toxic blue-green algae – making the pond unfit for human contact.

On Aquidneck Island, stormwater pollution causes high bacteria levels in Bailey’s Brook. The polluted water from the Brook flows through North Easton Pond and South Easton Pond and ends up at Newport’s very popular First Beach. As a result, the water at First Beach is rarely clean and the state Department of Health must close the beach several times each year during the busy summer season. These situations aren’t unique; other water bodies near Mashapaug Pond and on Aquidneck Island suffer similar harm as a result of stormwater pollution.

How do we know all this?

In legally required studies and analyses, Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has documented just how stormwater is harming Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies. In particular, DEM has concluded that these water bodies have been damaged by stormwater runoff from heavily paved commercial and industrial properties. EPA has formally approved each of these DEM studies after careful consideration.

So what’s the lawsuit all about?

When EPA approved the DEM studies for Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies, it legally determined that stormwater runoff from commercial and industrial properties was harming these water bodies. Under the Clean Water Act, this kind of determination means that these commercial and industrial dischargers must apply for permits for their stormwater discharges. And under EPA’s own Clean Water Act regulations, the agency must notify the dischargers that they need permits.

EPA hasn’t done this. CLF is suing to make sure EPA does its job.

That all sounds kind of abstract.

CLF’s success in this case will result in major and very tangible benefits. When commercial and industrial stormwater dischargers enter the Clean Water Act’s permit program, they have to take steps to clean up their stormwater discharges. In Rhode Island, this stormwater permitting program is managed – and managed well – by DEM. CLF’s lawsuit would likely result in hundreds of new dischargers entering the stormwater permitting program.

This means much less pollution flowing into water bodies like Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, and North Easton Pond. The long-term result will be swimmable, fishable waters that provide suitable habitat for wildlife. And that would be a very big deal.


For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”


Apr 9, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Riding the single chair ski lift to 3637′ summit of General Stark’s Mountain at Mad River Glen is among my life’s great pleasures. The lift pulls you ever upward through the forest at treetop height. You sit comfortably in solitude soaking it all in. The experience imparts a sense of serenity that competes with the giddy anticipation of the long, fast descent that awaits. The best moment comes when your chair attains the elevation that affords you a sweeping panoramic view over the spine of the Green Mountains to the shimmering shores of Lake Champlain that lie beyond, stretching northward in the distance to the Canadian border. It is a compelling visual reminder that “The Lake Starts Here.”


Watershed Perspective: Lake Champlain seen in the background from the summit of General Stark’s Mountain

When the snow melts it flows downhill into one of the many Vermont rivers that feed into Lake Champlain. These rivers and the mountains, forests, farms, and developed areas that drain into them are the Lake’s watershed. Credit for the clever hashtag #LakeStartsHere goes to our angler amigos at Lake Champlain International who are working in concert with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to raise “watershed” awareness among Vermonters and our visitors through a contest featuring photos like the one at right. The idea is to help people make connections between the snow they ski on in the winter and the water they drink, swim, fish, and boat on in the summer; as the seasons turn one becomes the other.

Watershed awareness is sorely needed at this critical moment in the history of Lake Champlain cleanup. While the Lake is a drinking water source for nearly 200,000 people and a recreation destination for thousands more, it is too often out of sight out of mind for many Vermonters who do not live in communities that touch the Lake’s shores. Yet the polluted runoff from farms, logging sites, roads, parking lots, industrial sites, downtowns, strip malls, and housing developments along with the polluted wastewater from those upstream communities all contribute to the clean water crisis (e.g., toxic blue-green algae blooms, noxious weed growth, fish kills) facing one of the nation’s largest freshwater lakes.

The Clean Water Act and Vermont’s own state water quality laws require everyone to do their part for cleanup. The laws are based on the wise premise, beautifully articulated by poet Wendell Berry, that we must do unto our downstream neighbors as we would have our upstream neighbors do unto us. At some point we all live downstream and, more importantly, we all benefit from clean water.

Fortunately, many of the pollution control measures Vermonters must undertake to clean up Lake Champlain will benefit local waterways and community bottom lines too.

  • When upstream farmers prevent manure runoff and soil erosion they not only reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing downstream to Lake Champlain, they also keep water free of harmful bacteria that can make local swimming holes unsafe and reduce sediment that clogs fish habitat.
  • When municipalities upgrade culverts and line ditches along their gravel roads they reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediments and also reduce the amount of money spent on road maintenance over the long term.
  • When real estate developers install “green stormwater infrastructure” at shopping plazas and housing developments, they reduce overall flows of phosphorus runoff flowing downstream to the Lake and at the same time reduce flash flooding risks in local rivers and streams caused by the artificial concentration of runoff from an overpaved landscape.
  • When ski areas maintain or restore robust buffers on high mountain streams, they minimize the local erosion hazards that result from clearing
    trails and reduce pollutants that flow downstream.

In the wake of CLF’s precedent-setting lawsuit and settlement with EPA seeking a truly effective and comprehensive cleanup framework for Lake Champlain, the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and EPA officials are wrestling with the final details of a new plan. CLF is playing an active watchdog role to ensure that Governor Shumlin, the state legislature, and EPA officials live up to their responsibilities under our clean water laws by holding all contributing pollution sources accountable to do their part. If and when they do, we can launch a new watershed-wide photo contest: #ACleanLakeStartsHere.

CLF Settlement Maintains Momentum on Stream Cleanup

Oct 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

For more than a decade, CLF has worked to secure the Clean Water Act’s promise of water quality that supports healthy fish populations and is safe for recreation in all the degraded urban streams flowing to Lake Champlain. A new CLF settlement with Vermont environmental regulators helps continue the momentum toward fulfillment of that promise.

Several years ago, CLF won a series of court cases that resulted in Vermont adopting pollution reduction targets for urban streams afflicted with an excess of fouled runoff. Some of that polluted runoff comes from the network of storm sewers and pipes owned by cities and towns. The runoff in these “municipal separate storm sewer systems” can contain a range of harmful pollutants including:

  • sediment
  • road salt
  • oil slicks (those toxic rainbow slicks left behind by leaking cars)
  • toxic metals
  • bacteria (from animal waste)
  • heat (think of how hot pavement gets in the summer–that heat transfers into rainwater coursing over blacktop)
  • phosphorous (the key culprit in causing algae blooms in Lake Champlain)

In addition, these storm sewers are often too efficient at clearing rainwater and snowmelt from paved surfaces.  The result can be flash flooding in streams swollen by unusually heavy flows caused by our artificial manipulation of the natural landscape’s drainage.


Green Infrastructure helps soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants running off paved surfaces. As an added bonus, these pollution control measures make urban environments look nicer and can help mitigate flash flooding. Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources


Scientists who developed the pollution reduction targets for Vermont’s urban streams have determined that there is a strong link between the overall amount of runoff being discharged and the amount of pollution reaching streams. The solution is to slow the flow and allow more precipitation to soak into the ground rather than run off paved surfaces.  When placed in enough locations throughout our built landscape, “Green Infrastructure” such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and constructed wetlands can restore the land’s natural ability to soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants before they reach streams.

Earlier this year, CLF challenged the permit regulating discharges of polluted runoff from numerous municipal storm sewers throughout Vermont. The permit is one of the main mechanisms for translating runoff reduction targets into on-the-ground pollution control measures like green infrastructure. Under the challenged permit, each polluting municipality designs its own cleanup plan, determining which pollution control measures to deploy and where to deploy them so as to achieve maximum runoff reduction. Unfortunately, the final version of the permit gave polluting municipalities up to twenty years to clean up their acts and also prevented meaningful public review of the cleanup plans each polluting city and town was devising for itself.

In response to these flaws, CLF challenged the permit. Fortunately, after extended settlement negotiations, Vermont environmental officials agreed that the permit needed fixing to ensure timely, transparent, and accountable cleanup efforts by each regulated city and town. The parties devised a settlement that addresses the flaws in the original permit related to the timing and transparency of the cleanup plans. First, Vermont officials have agreed that each municipality’s proposed cleanup plan will be subject to public notice and comment before agency approval, creating an opportunity for citizens to appeal any inadequate cleanup plans to the Environmental Court. Second, Vermont officials agreed to rescind the blanket twenty-year timeframe for cleanup plan completion contained in the original permit. Instead, Vermont regulators will make an individualized decision about the appropriateness of a schedule of compliance for each plan; those decisions will also be subject to public notice, comment, and appeal when necessary. The settlement maintains momentum in the restoration process for these streams and restores bedrock procedural public participation safeguards that are hallmarks of the Clean Water Act.

Vermont Recommits to the Clean Water Act

Jul 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Yesterday, EPA sent Vermont’s clean water agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, a Clean Water Act “Corrective Action Plan,” outlining permitting and enforcement improvements and updates the state has made or needs to make to ensure that the state provides all the protections required by law to its citizens and the waters they have a right to use and enjoy. This marks a major milestone in CLF’s long-running efforts to secure clean water for all Vermonters.

The federal Clean Water Act is one of the most important and successful laws our nation ever enacted. Before its passage more than 40 years ago, massive volumes of raw sewage and industrial wastes flowed freely into our lakes and rivers. Polluters responsible for this mess faced little in the way of meaningful consequences. The patchwork of state permitting and enforcement programs Americans relied on to keep our waters safe and clean simply had too many holes in it.

The law’s passage reflected a national commitment to restoring and protecting all of our nation’s waters, ensuring that they are safe for drinking, fishing, swimming, and boating, with water quality that also supports healthy populations of fish and shellfish. It established a national goal of eliminating water pollution. As important as this law is, its effectiveness depends on its faithful execution by political appointees and career professional regulators at EPA and partner state clean water agencies like Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2008, CLF acted on its longstanding concerns that Vermont’s waters were suffering from excessive pollution in part because state officials were falling far short of fulfilling all of their Clean Water Act responsibilities. CLF, with tremendous assistance from its able pro-bono counsel from the Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Legal Clinic,  petitioned EPA to order significant improvements in Vermont’s water pollution control permitting and enforcement efforts. If Vermont officials failed to make needed improvements, CLF asked EPA to take over the lead in issuing permits and enforcing against polluters in Vermont.

After several years of investigation by EPA and negotiations with state officials, the Corrective Action Plan EPA issued represents a validation of CLF’s core concerns. It also represents a positive re-commitment to the Clean Water Act by the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin. Among the positive corrective actions Vermont has taken or will take to better control pollution per the EPA plan are:

  • The final issuance of the state’s first ever permit to control pollution discharges from “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”—animal feedlot operations meeting certain regulatory criteria—in a manner that complies with the Clean Water Act.
  • Commitments to increase annual inspections of actual and suspected “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” to detect unlawful pollution discharges and ensure that CAFO dischargers apply for and comply with Clean Water Act permits.
  • Changes to state law allowing citizens to have a voice in the resolution of Clean Water Act enforcement proceedings.
  • A plan for limiting the amount of nutrients discharged by municipal wastewater treatment plants into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.
  • Enforcement against the Village of Waterbury sewage treatment plant that will significantly reduce one of the largest single phosphorous discharges into Lake Champlain through installation of state-of-the-art technology
  • Conforming the state’s policy relating to the use of polluter’s penalty payments to EPA’s requirement
  • Implementing a requirement of the Clean Water Act to prevent the degradation of existing high quality waters

The declining health of Lake Champlain and numerous other Vermont waterways underscores how far we. By implementing all of the Corrective Actions outlined above, Vermont is taking an important step in the right direction toward clean water solutions. Vermonters’ quality of life, economic vitality, and maintenance of our state’s green “brand” requires nothing less.

Long Creek Restoration Project: Making a Difference One Planting at a Time

Jul 2, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Long Creeek Restoration Project

Staff Attorney Ivy Frignoca helps plant vegetation along Long Creek

On July 20, many volunteers including CLF Attorney Ivy Frignoca helped plant vegetation along a tributary of Long Creek which winds through South Portland, Maine, and eventually empties into Casco Bay. The planting was part of the Long Creek Restoration Project, a collaborative 10 year plan to reverse the impacts of years of stormwater pollution to Long Creek. The creek runs through the Maine Mall and surrounding industrial/commercial area where it receives runoff from impervious areas like rooftops, roads and parking lots. This runoff carries heavy metals and other toxins into the creek, and has killed brook trout and other species that once lived there.

In 2008, CLF petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and asked it to issue a permit requiring area businesses to clean up the pollution. EPA issued the permit. Landowners and other stakeholders then banded together to form the Long Creek Restoration Partnership. To learn more about that effort, read this archived article from the Portland Press Herald.

The partnership is 3 years into its 10 year management plan and has put in place plantings, filters, and other items that have already reduced runoff from 30% of the land subject to the permit. Water quality testing is showing promising improvement and more projects are planned for the next several years! This year expect to see plantings in road medians and in 2015, trees added to the Maine Mall Parking lot.


Important vote will reopen the St. Croix River to Alewives

Apr 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The bill passed today will restore alewives, a key forage fish, to the St. Croix River, pictured here. Photo: CanadaGood @ flickr

We at CLF applaud today’s vote by the Maine state legislature to restore Alewives to their native habitat in the St. Croix River.

Today, the legislature voted to pass a bill that will reopen the fish ladder at the Grand Falls Dam, allowing the key forage fish to reach 98% of the St. Croix. This vote caps a two-year effort by CLF advocates to restore a fishery that numbered close to 3 million until a state law closed the fish ladder and the number of alewives dwindled to less than 10,000. Last year CLF successfully filed suit against the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act’s provision related to the state law and then filed suit against the State to invalidate that law.

This bill corrects a practice of fisheries mismanagement that has been allowed to stand for almost two decades. It properly places good science and the interest of many over the self interests of a few. While litigation is the principal tool of our trade, it is wonderful to see the Legislature right this wrong and we hope to be able to dismiss our case against the State soon.

Introduced in March 2013, the bill found strong support among a number of the groups invested and concerned with the restoration of the St. Croix River and its native fish. These groups include Maine fishermen, environmentalists, anglers, federal agencies, and the Passamaquoddy.

The alternative bill proposed by the LePage administration was a half-measure that would have still kept alewives from reaching most of their native habitat.

This vote ensures alewives will now return to the St. Croix River. It is exactly the result that our legal advocacy was aiming for, and we applaud it as an important step forward.

CLF has been blogging on this topic regularly. To read those posts, click here.

Growing Our Food Without Poisoning the Water: VT Issues Important New Draft Permit

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

A manure spreader overloads a St. Albans farm field with manure resulting in a direct discharge to Lake Champlain in 2007.

CLF is committed to protecting clean water AND to supporting a healthy farming economy in Vermont and throughout New England (read more about our food and farm work here). At CLF we know we Vermonters can grow our food without poisoning our water.  We have no choice if we are going to achieve a thriving New England for generations to come.

That’s why CLF has worked so hard to get Vermont officials to admit that intensive dairy operations and other types of industrial farming that confine large numbers of animals in small spaces needed to obtain Clean Water Act permits for discharges of manure and other pollution into waters of the state. Vermont is one of the last states, and in fact may be the last state to issue a permit to minimize and eventually eliminate these discharges from “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) under the Clean Water Act.

In 2008, CLF issued a detailed report titled Failing our Waters, Failing our Farms: Vermont Regulators Turn A Blind Eye to Threat of Illegal Pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” The report relied on years of agency inspection documents showing numerous cases of manure and other discharges that clearly violated the Clean Water Act. CLF’s report called for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state regulators who run the federal Clean Water Act program in Vermont, to begin requiring polluting operations to obtain Clean Water Act permits.

Sadly, CLF’s call to action went unheeded, and cases of unchecked CAFO pollution continued, resulting in contamination of Lake Champlain and other lakes, rivers, and streams throughout Vermont. Particularly, agricultural discharges can result in harmful bacteria outbreaks and in the explosive growth of harmful blue-green algae that can make water unsafe for swimming, fishing, boating, and drinking.

When state officials failed to act, CLF, with pro bono representation from Vermont Law School’s Environment and Natural Resources Clinic, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over Clean Water Act permitting because it was clear that Vermont officials lacked the political will to adequately deal with a major group of polluters in a manner consistent with the nation’s landmark clean water law. EPA officials took CLF’s allegations seriously. Though Vermont officials initially resisted acceptance of this core water protection obligation, the last couple years have seen breakthroughs in the negotiation over the petition which in part resulted in the issuance of today’s long-awaited draft permit as well as forthcoming commitments by the state and EPA to dedicate more resources to CAFO inspection and enforcement.

CLF applauds Governor Shumlin, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, and Department of Environmental Conservation Commission David Mears for showing the leadership to have Vermont at last embrace this important Clean Water Act obligation. Though the issuance of a draft permit is merely a small step in the right direction–CLF hopes it is a clear signal that Vermont may be ready to stop backpedaling when it comes to protecting lakes, rivers, and streams from this serious source of pollution.

CLF looks forward to examining this draft carefully and to filing comments to ensure that the permit contains all of the protections the law requires. I urge all who care about water that is safe for swimming, fishing, boating, and drinking and that supports fish and other wildlife, to examine the Draft Permit (available from the Agency’s web site here) and to send comments supporting its final adoption. There is no doubt that the powerful interests of Big Agriculture will continue to fight this positive step forward, even though many other farmers are welcoming the opportunity to be better stewards of our shared water resources.


40 Years Later, Would We Pass the Clean Water Act Today?

Oct 18, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

I love rivers.  In fact, I love all things water. And so today I’m celebrating the 40th birthday of the Clean Water Act, perhaps America’s most effective and far-reaching environmental law.

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York and spent a lot of time stomping around in our ponds, streams, and wetlands catching frogs, listening to spring peepers, watching birds and muskrats and ermine. We fished whenever we could and had a family challenge about who would be the first in the water after ice-out in the spring and last out before (or after) the frost in the fall. We marked the seasons by the coming and going of the ice, by the water temperature in the ponds, and, in some years, watched anxiously as drought lowered water levels and put our water supplies at risk. All of this has led to a connection to waters that has infused my life, including my professional career.

One of my earliest memories from over 40 years ago and leading to my lifetime of advocacy for clean water is of my father taking me to the Cayadutta Creek in Fonda, New York to see the stream running bright red and foul from pollution from the tanneries in Gloversville and Johnstown. I was overwhelmed by the image of the creek flowing by as a river of blood. My dad fumed that creeks and rivers all over were being poisoned by such pollution.

Cuyahoga River Burns in 1969

So it’s not a surprise that my family watched the news with outrage as America was shown the image of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio literally burning in 1969. Perhaps we were told at the time that the river had burned on nine occasions in the prior 100 years. But in any case, that fire became the symbol of unacceptable water pollution for us and for millions of Americans who called on Congress for action. It helped spur the first Earth Day in 1970, and thankfully, it contributed to the political urgency for passage of the Clean Water Act on October 18th 1972, 40 years ago today.

Passage of the Clean Water Act by the United States Congress marked the end of an amazing political process. On this day 40 years ago with strong, bi-partisan votes in the House (247 yes and 23 no (with 160 not voting)) and Senate (52 to 12 (with 36 not voting)), Congress overrode the wrongheaded veto of the law by President Nixon. Many members of Congress from both parties voted yes, but just as significant were those that didn’t vote. By consciously withdrawing from the debate, many Republicans heeded the voices of their constituents, defied a President of their own party, and allowed the override votes to succeed.

What has been the result of this historic event? The Clean Water Act became law and much of the severe industrial and sewage pollution of our precious waters has been brought in check. The Cayadutta Creek no longer runs blood red, and the Cuyahoga has recovered to the point that it won’t catch fire. That is a 40th birthday present that we all can enjoy.

But, it also raises the question: if the Cuyahoga were burning today, could we pass the Clean Water Act?

I like to think that Americans would pull together again and demand action. However, the reality is that we are now living with “dead zones” that are threatening our communities and industries in Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, on Cape Cod, and in Lake Champlain. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ranges from 6-7000 square miles – bigger than the State of Connecticut! This is the result of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that is pouring into our waters from agriculture, lawn fertilizing, excessive development, and sewage discharges.

Blue-Green Algae Fouls Lake Champlain 2011

And, just two years ago, we all watched with horror, as the Gulf burned from the BP oil spill.

So, this 40th birthday of the Clean Water Act should also serve as a reminder to us all that clean water is as important now as it ever has been and there is still much more to do.

Here at CLF, we have a long legacy of fighting for clean water across New England. CLF filed the Federal Court lawsuit that led to a clean Boston Harbor. We have held numerous polluters accountable for discharges into New England’s waterways. We stopped oil and gas drilling off of New England’s coasts.

Today, we are fighting to protect waters from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from Cape Cod to the Charles River, New Hampshire’s Great Bay to Long Island Sound, and from Narragansett Bay to Lake Champlain.  We are working with cities and towns to create green infrastructure that cleans up stormwater pollution and beautifies our communities.  All of our efforts are possible because of Congress’s action 40 years ago today.

Happy 40th Birthday Clean Water Act!

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